Why Love Is Not the Cure for Loneliness
... and what's far more important.
Posted Feb 19, 2016
The following is an excerpt from the book Stop Being Lonely: Three Simple Steps to Developing Close Friendships and Deep Relationships. Reprinted with permission of the author and publisher.
You may have been wondering why I have yet to mention love in the discussion of loneliness. Isn’t love a perfectly good solution to loneliness? Isn’t love the deepest, strongest bond we can have with another person? Isn’t love the basis of all relationships that matter?
The answer is the same to all these questions: Yes and no. Love absolutely brings people together. When someone who’s been a stranger becomes a lover, in our eyes he or she becomes infused with an almost surreal importance. It can be hard to tell where you end and they begin . . . and you both like it that way.
But the majestic, heightened state of love has a flip side, one with which we’re all too familiar: Love is fickle. You could fall in love with someone who’s completely inappropriate for you. You could fall in love with someone who’s not available. You could love someone who doesn’t love you back. You could love someone passionately for a short period of time and then watch the relationship fizzle for reasons you don’t fully understand.
And it’s not just romantic love that’s largely outside of our understanding. Expectant parents will attest to the fact that we can love someone before he’s even born. We can love people after they die. Whom we love (and for that matter, when, where, how, and why we love) is largely outside our control.
So the notion that love is a reliable solution to loneliness is a myth because, simply put: Love is a mystery.
Closeness, however, is not.
We can pick up methods for creating closeness because we know what generates closeness between people, and what doesn’t. I don’t think anyone can say the same about love. Love certainly reduces loneliness, given the right circumstances, but it also increases loneliness under unfavorable ones. Closeness, unlike love, always works toward reducing loneliness. Closeness is useful in a way that love is not. If you do certain tangible things with a receptive partner, you will see tangible results. The more effort you put into it, the more you will get out of it.
There’s also a specific way in which closeness is a handier solution than love: It opens up the possibility of less loneliness at work. We generally deem loving anyone at the office inappropriate. Even if you do have a strong connection or friendship with a colleague, it’s easy to see how calling it “love” makes the relationship instantly sound unprofessional.
But most of us spend a great deal of time at work, and there are likely lots of people we know professionally with whom we could build a meaningful relationship. Closeness gives working relationships the opportunity to matter as much as strictly personal ones.
The fact is, you don’t have to be lonely just because you’re not in love. And if you are in love, closeness makes that love that much more stable and reliable.
I see evidence for this in the ample research on marriage and divorce: The overwhelming majority of people who get married, at least in Western developed countries, say that they do it for love. In our culture, marriage is seen as the ultimate expression of committed love, and most who commit to marriage expect that the love that brought them together will last a lifetime.
Let’s pair this fact about how marriages begin with what we know about how they end. The Divorce Mediation survey by Lynn Gigy and Joan Kelly found that 80 percent of divorced people said their marriages broke up primarily because they “grew apart.” This cause trumped all others, including the one we generally assume is the main marriage killer—affairs. (Only 25 percent of respondents said an affair played any part in the decline of their marriage.)
So what does this tell us? Marriage is all about love and divorce is all about distance. Even the relationships that are most filled with love will fall apart without closeness. Closeness is the foundation for all satisfying and long-lasting relationships because love really needs closeness in a way that closeness doesn’t need love.
You can feel close to someone you’re not in love with. And if you’re in love but can’t access your partner’s inner world, it’s inevitable that the relationship will slide down the spectrum to distance.
That being said, love relationships—particularly marriages—are excellent opportunities to create closeness. The great advantage marriage has over other relationships is that it’s an explicit commitment. It’s one of the few times (maybe the only time?) when you expressly choose a partner and they choose you back. This creates an environment of deliberateness—of conscious choosing—very conducive to creating closeness.
But don’t wait for a love relationship to find you before you take action to stop feeling lonely. You can create so much fulfillment and connection with others without waiting for love.
Kira Asatryan is a certified relationship coach and author of Stop Being Lonely: Three Simple Steps to Developing Close Friendships and Deep Relationships.